The more I sit with the task of writing a thought-provoking and well-resourced prompt on gender as it relates to Jordan and the Middle East, the more stumped I become. I have started this post multiple times and later erased everything I have written. It is not that I don’t have anything to say; it is more that I have too much to say, too many thoughts, and some of those thoughts are also emotions. Talking about gender, being a female-identified person in the Middle East, or simply just being in this female skin in the world, is layered and complex for me. As is talking about masculinity, which I will leave out here but we will discuss more in depth on course.
I arrived to Egypt in 2009 on my first ever trip outside of the country bristling with anticipation of the harassment that I would face. I had heard horror stories. I saw the look of concern on people’s faces when I told them I would be going to the Middle East for a few months. I got asked things like “Will you dye your hair?” and “Will you wear a headscarf?” and “Are women allowed outside on their own there?” I grew up blonde, fair-skinned, and very outspoken about my opinions, so I believe people (myself included) were nervous about how that would be received.
Obviously, some of these questions are naive, and if you’ve signed up for this type of an experience with Dragons, you probably know that already. But these were genuine questions I got and had to answer. Similarly, one of the questions I have tired of hearing since my first trip to an Arabic-speaking country back in 2009 is “What was it like to be a woman there?” Or, slightly worse: “Wow, it must have been hard to be a woman there.”
I cringe. Yes, it’s true that I have had difficult experiences in the Middle East that are related to the fact that I identify as and look like a woman. I did not consider dyeing my hair, but ultimately I did decide to wear a headscarf at times and I still do when we are in the village. It is also true and worth mentioning that I have had a myriad of positive experiences in the region because of the intimacy I get invited into, solely because I am a woman. And finally, I hardly even need to mention that being a woman poses its challenges anywhere in the world.
One of the aspects of being a Western woman in Jordan that I appreciate most is that it feels like being a third gender. I am seen as a woman, and therefore I am invited into female Jordanian space. The intimacy of this space in Jordan is sacred, and I get to experience it even though I am an outsider in other ways. I have deeply connective conversations with women and talk about the choices that they have made: why or why not do they cover their hair? What ambitions do they have? What are their fears?
I also, to some extent, get to experience friendship with Jordanian men in a different way than a Jordanian woman would, because as an American, especially in the city, the same gender rules don’t always apply to me. Many Ammanis know that young Westerners spend time one-on-one with members of the opposite sex without it being romantic or culturally inappropriate. And so it is more acceptable for me to have those friendships than it would be for a Jordanian woman. This third, in-between gender experience can allow for a unique view into Jordanian cultures if we are lucky enough to be invited into those spaces.
I say all of this in the hopes that it provides some nuance into what it may actually feel like to be a woman in Jordan. But nothing can give you more nuance than actually experiencing it. And for everyone reading this, we will also have ample opportunity to discuss gender, both masculinity and femininity, while on course. This topic always comes up, and it’s one of my favorites.
In the meantime, as we gear up for your arrival to Jordan, we’d like to offer up some resources and writings that can speak to the experience of being an Arab woman better than Paul or I can. And we’d like you to think on and respond to the questions below. Please post your responses to the yak board so that we can all see each other’s and being to think and interact as a group.
Important note: in starting to speak about gender, I am generalizing. I personally identify as mostly cisgender female, and when I use the terms “woman” and “man” I am referring to the general experience of cisgender male and female people. However, we recognize that for many, gender is more complex. We are very open to having that conversation should it arise on course together. Similarly, I use the term “Jordanian” to broadly apply to anyone who may have Jordanian citizenship, but might more comfortably identify as Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi, Circassian, etc.
Veil of Ignorance: Have we gotten the headscarf all wrong? Leila Ahmed
Ponderings on Gender: Former Dragons Middle East Regional Director and Jordan Course Founder Alena Bartoli
Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others:
Daily Life in Zaatari: ‘Another Kind of Girl’ video:
Simple, dreamy, poetic, quirky camera angles… a short video by young
Syrian girl living in Zaatari
Refugees, Masculinity & Discrimination: Luigi Achilli